Sometimes A Good Business Model Can Overcome a Bad Name. But Don't Count on it.

Adding the prefix ‘black’ to any word or phrase is a decidedly mixed bag. Black Monday is when markets melt and so for that matter is Black Tuesday. Yet black is also sublime, classy, elegant like the simple black dress or a black limo. But Black Friday?

According to some word nerds, the term was first coined by law enforcement to describe the craziness of the biggest shopping day of the year.  Over time it settled in and despite some attempts to change the name or give it a new meaning, e.g. the day retailers’ balance sheet went from red to black, (apparently an urban myth) we’re stuck with Black Friday.

But better than say, chartreuse Friday.

The BRANDER-IN-CHIEF NAMES A BILL ACT

Vanity Fair just published a piece detailing Paul Ryan’s request of the Brander-in-Chief to name the tax bill. Given POTUS’s predilection to brand everything from hotels to steak with his own moniker, it’s a little surprising that his adamant recommendation is The “Cut Cut Cut Act.” Given the likelihood of its failure, maybe not calling it the Trump Tax Act is prescient.  Here’s some of our suggestions:

  • The “On second thought, I really wish I wouldn’t have won this thing act.”
  • The “If the Russians helped Hillary I wouldn’t be in this mess act.”
  • The “Extra special tax break for Special Prosecutors if they’d leave me alone act”
  • The “How pissed will Ivanka be if I fire Jared act?”
  • The “Aliens from Mars just landed in the Arizona desert and this is not an obvious attempt at distraction act.”
  • The “Let them eat Trump branded cake act.”
  • The “Worst 12 months of my life, well except for that time with Marla act.”
  • The “No tax for the rest of your life if you can find dirt on Mueller act.”
  • The “Who knew uranium could be so complicated act?”
  • The “Hillary and Canada there is something there, sad act.”

McDonald's is Not a Kroc

We finally found the time to watch “The Founder” with Michael Keaton reprising his “Pacific Heights” role as McDonald’s putative founder, Ray Kroc.  A terrific movie and two scenes stand out for us name dweebs.  The first shows Keaton as Kroc explaining to the McDonald brothers that what they “never understood” was the power of their brand name. Keaton explains that it was never about the food, the experience or the efficiency it was the name, it was just so all American, so filled with promise. Second, over the closing credits, we see a grainy black and white clip of the real Ray Kroc recalling the real deal, “McDonalds, it’s a typical English-American word. It flows, I like the sound of it. It sounded wholesome, it sounded genuine. I don’t like these gimmicky type names; burger this and burger that names. McDonald’s, it’s gotta nice sounding name to it.”

We agree.

Stampeded by an Extraordinary Name

The world’s largest living things are being threatened by the tip toes of tiny human feet. The New York Times reported recently that the heretofore secret location of a grove of some of the biggest trees known to man has been exposed by sleuthing amateur arborists. Tree lovers can love these trees to death by simply walking upon their shallow and delicate root system. Since it can’t unring this bell, the state is installing a boardwalk so strollers can admire without trampling.

A spokesperson for project attributed much of the interest in the grove to its name, “The Grove of Titans.”  “Who can resist?”, she said. 

We would have loved the assignment: Create a name to keep people away.

NAMER-IN-CHIEF GETS TRUMPED

Replacing the existential threat with gallows humor for a moment, the DPRK has won the war of wits with POTUS. Let’s face it, “RocketMan” is nothing but a complement. It suggests rocket scientist and through that anything associated with rockets is generally good, right? Rockets are advanced, technical, fast, cool, and generally capture the public’s imagination. Heck even songs get written about them. The obvious, and more withering, sobriquet would have been “RocketBoy.”  But, I for one am glad that label didn’t get used.

Kim Jung Un's riposte, “Dotard” was undeniably brilliant. Even if you don’t know what it means it looks and sounds like an insult. And because most don’t know what it means, like all great names, it sparked curiosity.

But what is one to expect in a battle of names between “POTUS” and “Supreme Leader?”

SMART LUGGAGE. NAMES LESS SO.

I am readying myself for some travel this coming week and my old, pre-wheel Hartman is a badge brand that is just too heavy for these weary shoulders. Hartman is a near-couture brand name that like all surnames takes time to establish itself.  The way, say, Samsonite, does not.

During my search for the quintessential piece of travel gear I came across these brand names.

G-RO offers a rolling bag with large wheels.  A great idea.  It took a while to read G-RO as Gyro, i.e. turning, but got it in context, eventually.  Not a fan of hyphens though; too open to pronunciation issues. Is it Gee Row or Grow, or G hyphen R O?  Geero would be better. Or perhaps Souvlaki?

Away is simply beautiful. Evocative of everything you want travel to be.  Except of course when you are ready to come home.

Fugu?  Fuggaadabout.  Travelmate… hmm I bet the creator of this name makes for lively seatmate conversation.  DUFL, can I buy a vowel please?  Bluesmart picks up on Bluetooth one assumes but conjoined brand names work best when they have some common element.  Bluetooth at least has some rhythm to it.

And then there’s Modobag.  Pretty cool name; descriptive with a hint of mystery.  This is a motorized piece of luggage that you sit on as you travel from gate to gate. But judging from the pictures, it is doomed to suffer from the Segway Syndrome – one looks like a dweeb-nerd-geek-loser scooting around the airport on one of these.

I haven’t bought a piece yet.  Too distracted by the names.

HOW LONG IS TOO LONG?

There is an increasing body of research supporting the idea that pronounceable names produce more positive associations. And while this research addresses people's names, there is no reason one can’t make the leap to brand names. But other than common-sense judgement preferring short to long, we really don’t know if long names are bad per se.

Is Holland better than The Netherlands?  Is America Better than the United States of America? Is Britain better than the United Kingdom?

Is Cadillac preferred to Caddy, Budweiser to Bud, General Motors to GM? It makes for interesting debates among word nerds over a Pinot (or is it a Pinot Noir?) but (as we encourage our clients) there is no single determinate of an extraordinary brand name – it must be evaluated holistically.

Take for example maybe the longest brand on television right now, “The Konica-Minolta BizHub SwingVision Camera,” with which any viewers of golf are quite familiar.  Yep, way long but it rolls of Peter Kostis’s tongue most mellifluously.

MOO FUG? FUGIDABOUDIT

Name a major multinational financial group with 350 years of history, $2.6 trillion in assets and operations in 50 countries. We’d love to. And we’d do it for free.

Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group or MUFG, surely provides their clients sound financial counsel, but even with all the positive brand equity in the world, it must be hard to get past the name; “Hi, this is Bill with MUFG and I’d like to sell you some bonds.” “Well Bill, MUFG you too.” Both science and common sense demonstrate that a hard to pronounce name raises concerns that simply don’t need to be there.

If anybody is listening, we’d love to help.

MIND YOUR P's & Q's. And The Rest of the Alphabet for That Matter

According to a recent story in the WSJ, Tesla got more than a little flummoxed over a single letter and a single number. The story goes that each successive Tesla model would be branded a single letter and over the course of four cars those letters will spell out S-E-X-Y.

At first blush, we confess that we were very skeptical that a person as smart as Musk and as cool and confident a marketer as he is (as evidenced by the extraordinary name he gave his company) would do something as trite as spell out sexy.  But, by all accounts it’s true.

But even this wicked smart marketer was thwarted by a single simple letter. You see, the letter ‘E’ is trademarked in the automotive industry by a company they just surpassed in market cap, Ford. Hard to believe one can register a single letter or a single number but it happens all the time in CarWorld.

Musk’s response to this was to use the number three (3) thinking that perhaps when viewed in a rearview mirror it looked like an ‘E.’ Actually, a pretty sharp and innovative answer per se, but in Autoville, numbers carry a significance far beyond a mere brand name. To car buyers they telegraph either a price class or the latest iteration of an existing model. Neither of which is true for Tesla’s model 3.

This is certainly nothing more than a hiccup for Tesla, but when your profession is naming things, it makes for a fun read.

VOLKSWAGEN BREAKS NAMING RULES

Sirocco, Tiguan, Touareg, Fahrvergnugen, Passat. All tongue twisters indeed. (That’s Zungenbrecher, in German, btw.) Common sense suggests that everything else being equal, pronounceable brand names are better than those open to question. An old boss maintained this was not always the case and that pronunciation could be enforced. (See Honda Prelude or Toyota Previa, or just about any non-American automaker for that matter. And really, does anyone who can afford a Porsche not pronounce it correctly?)

But there is a substantial body of empirical evidence (more detail in future postings) that demonstrates that common sense, which is not so common, btw, is right in this case.

From hiring decisions; people prefer Mr. Smith to Mr. Colquahon, to purchase decisions; stocks with simple names sell better than complex ones, pronounceable names are better.

Volkswagen also offers Golf, Jetta, and Atlas. We guess they’re hedging their naming bets.

OATH? Ufda

How you introduce your new brand name is almost as important as the name itself. And since everybody is a budding comedian with a wry comment and a social media account, you have to have your head in the sand not to anticipate sideways looks and withering commentary about your new name no matter how great and powerful it is.

The branding highway is littered with new names that, good, bad or indifferent, were pummeled in the media. And while you can’t completely protect yourself you can be smarter about how you introduce your new self to the world.

First, constraining yourself to launching something as important as your brand using just 140 characters invites ridicule. Names need context, a story, a reason. Brands will never stand alone so why introduce them that way? 140 characters begs people to crack wise with one-liners. Tell your customers and prospects why you chose the name you did. It will aid recall and seat the message.

Second, the Twitter medium itself facilitates the ridicule. Creating is hard, criticizing is easy. No one is going to go viral patting you on the back for your strategy and creativity, so why encourage the negativity with a medium known for anything but reasoned thought.

Now to the name itself, Oath. Verizon didn’t do itself any favors.  In the end, the business will rise and fall on its merits and the name tempest will be but a footnote, but still. Oath is a serious word about serious matters. Let’s face it, we're talking entertainment here so there is a disconnect that could have been easily avoided.  Digging a little deeper and over-parsing it like no consumer will, didn’t Yahoo! take an “oath” to secure its customers’ data?  Irony much?

Linguistically, Oath is short but nonetheless it is an awkward word requiring a few more gyrations of the vocal tract than its brevity would suggest. Not a deal killer, but there are 249,999 other words in the English language.

Yahoo! captured the ethos of its time. AOL, anticipating the social aspect of social media before there was such a thing, invited all of America to join in. Is Oath too serious for these troubled times? Perhaps, something more diverting was called for.

From Bubble Gum To Hedge Funds, Names Matter

A paper just out from the University of Buffalo and Finland's University of Oulu empirically shows that names can have a significant impact on sales.  As if we didn't know.  But interestingly the study was done on hedge fund names - a highly considered purchase by well-informed buyers - and it found that names with gravitas had better sales than those with names that are seen as less weighty.

Uppercase has long maintained this with both evidence and instinct, and now here is international research not just bearing this out (again) but demonstrating it in even the most sophisticated of purchases.

Hedge funds hold billions of dollars in investments.  Seems like a no brainer to invest in an extraordinary brand name for themselves.

Who Says Insurance is Boring?

Patting ourselves on the back just a bit, we thought we broke the mold when we helped our client create the Stillwater name for their insurance brand. We saw a landscape cluttered with odd acronyms and iterations of farm and state. But the latest entrant found the mold, repaired it and broke it again.

Lemonade is a New York-based insurer for home owners and renters. Now insurance is a stodgy business but that's because most of us want stodgy when it comes to covering our assets. But Lemonade takes a whole new approach and hats off to them for selecting a name that telegraphs this.

A refreshing name for a refreshing business model!

NAME THAT BRAND! with MARKETING PROFS

Uppercase Branding’s President, Mike Pile, enjoyed a wonderful half hour discussing brand name development for new products and companies with Marketing Profs’s host Kerry O’Shea Gorgone.

Listen to it here:

https://www.marketingprofs.com/podcasts/2017/31472/branding-mike-pile-marketing-smarts

YAHOO!'S NEW MONIKER ALTABA. IS IT A CHOICE OR AN ALTERNATIVE

The powers that be at Yahoo and Verizon surely had bigger things to worry about than their new name.  And by selecting Altaba, it’s clear they concerned themselves very little. Brand pundits are likely surprised by the move, given how much attention Yahoo! devoted to its recent rebranding.

First, congratulations for demonstrating the courage to abandon the name Yahoo!. By any measure, it is an easier task to rebrand than to change minds.

And at face value, Altaba is not a bad name. In fact, one can make a compelling argument that it is a strong name: It is not overly long or hard to pronounce despite having three syllables; it has a certain rhythm to it; and if you want to deconstruct it linguistically you can speak to alta being elevated or top (positive attributes to be sure) and the repeating ‘a’s reinforce leadership, performance and superiority. Furthermore, sound symbolists will argue that the percussive ‘b’ sound triggers notions of action and movement. (Compare this to the fewer gyrations your vocal tract makes to produce the less active ‘p’ sound.)

But Altaba doesn’t stand alone - it is inextricably tied to Yahoo! And given everyone’s penchant to kick around the company anyway, a name without a positive narrative to support it will turn into a punch line.

Five years from now, the company will either succeed or fail on its merits and nobody will care about the name. But you only get one chance to make a first impression, so it is incumbent upon any brand leader to ensure the narrative, especially in a high-profile situation like this, is positive.

Here’s what we know: Altaba is portmanteau of alternative and Alibaba suggesting, somewhat flat-footedly IMHO, that the new entity is an alternative to Alibaba. Fair enough… but it misses opportunities both clear and subtle. Clearly, while consumers love choice, they don’t so much like alternatives. This is a difference with a distinction.  Choice has unabashedly positive connotations, while alternative suggests second-class status. Subtly, the stories promulgated in the press paint a picture of resignation. Part of that tableau is a business model that seems to say: “well, an alternative is the best we can hope for.” And the decision seems to take place amid a background that disregards the power of creativity in general, and the power of a brand story in a particular. It sounds like they settled.

Altaba is now and forever a simple portmanteau, whereas it could have been a soaring new choice in the media landscape.

No brand name is an island as it will always be considered in context. This is less about a brand name than it is a lesson in how to support the brand narrative behind it.

TEAM TRUMP TRAMPLES TWICE

With members of the electoral college exercising their constitutional duty to vote and their constitutional prerogative of voting for any candidate their conscience tells them to, those hinting that they may not vote for Trump are being branded as “Faithless.”

 

Resurrecting a ploy from their election playbook where they effectively ridiculed “Little Marco” and near slandered “Crooked Hillary,” let’s look at just how powerful this latest name is.

 

Faithless appeals to the base of church-going folk who may be tolerant of other religions but are arguably intolerant of any one without faith of any kind.

 

It resonates with the others in his constituency who bought the rigged election story. The revised narrative goes like this: just when you started to believe in the system, just when you have renewed faith in America, in democracy, in the election process, the Faithless undermine you yet again.

 

Secondarily, it is repellant to everybody else. Even Clinton supporters are hard pressed to get behind Faithless people. Compare Faithless to say, something less evocative but more accurate, Conscientious Objectors. Anybody can understand someone following their conscience even if they don't support them but they may be hard pressed to explain away some one who is a heathen.

 

No descriptive term will ever carry the weight of an emotional one. And maybe here, captured in a single in a word, is the explanation of why the (far) right is ascending and the left and center is on the defensive.  Emotion trumps rationality almost every time.